From Colonel Sanders to Grace Kelly: Iconic American Portraits by Yousuf Karsh

The National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition on Yousuf Karsh will display a rotating selection of Karsh portraits until November 4, 2014

In 1941, as war raged in Europe and the Pacific, British prime minister Winston Churchill traveled to Washington for meetings with President Franklin Roosevelt before continuing on to Ottawa, where he delivered a rousing speech before the Canadian Parliament on December 30. Canada’s prime minister, Mackenzie King—an early admirer of Yousuf Karsh’s work—arranged for Karsh to attend Churchill’s address and to be in position to photograph the British leader as he later passed through the Speaker’s Chamber. Surprised to discover that he was to be photographed, Churchill grudgingly agreed to give Karsh two minutes for the shot but declined the photographer’s gentle entreaty to relinquish his freshly lit cigar. Undeterred, Karsh deftly removed the cigar from Churchill’s mouth and quickly made his exposure as Britain’s “roaring lion” glowered at the camera. The resulting image—one of the 20th century’s most iconic portraits—effectively launched Karsh’s international career.

In 1963, Churchill became the first foreign national to be granted honorary U.S. citizenship by the U.S. Congress. Read the full story of Karsh's portrait session with Churchill on our Around the Mall blog. Yousuf Karsh. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery.
In 1954, when Ernest Hemingway received the Nobel Prize in Literature, the committee cited his “mastery of the art of modern narration.” In fact, through his short stories and such novels as The Sun Also Rises (1926) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), Hemingway had, with his terse, powerful prose, in large measure invented a new literary style as he chronicled the disillusionment of the post–World War I “lost generation.” Hemingway’s own experiences—reporting foreign wars, living the bohemian life in Paris, and adventuring in Africa, Spain, and Cuba—fueled his imagination and helped foster his larger-than-life public persona.

When Karsh traveled to Cuba in 1957 to photograph Hemingway, he “expected to meet in the author a composite of the heroes of his novels.” Instead, the photographer recalled, “I found a man of peculiar gentleness, the shyest man I ever photographed—a man cruelly battered by life but seemingly invincible.” Yousuf Karsh. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery.
A transformative force in the American labor movement, Cesar Chavez dedicated his life to the struggle to secure fair wages and decent working conditions for the nation’s agricultural workers. Chavez had toiled as a migrant in his youth and was well acquainted with the hardships endured by seasonal laborers—many of them Mexican or Mexican American—who followed the harvest on farms throughout California and the Southwest. In 1962, he partnered with activist Dolores Huerta to co-found the forerunner of the United Farm Workers of America (UFW)—the first successful farm workers’ union in the nation. In 1965 Chavez initiated a massive boycott of California grapes in a campaign that continued for five years and ended in victory when grape- growers agreed to accept unionized field workers.

Photographed at his headquarters in California, Chavez stands in a doorway bordered by Aztec eagles—the UFW’s symbol, which Chavez helped to design. Yousuf Karsh. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery; gift of Estrellita Karsh in memory of Yousuf Karsh.
Cartoonist Walt Disney created a sensation in 1928 when he introduced Mickey Mouse to moviegoers in Steamboat Willie, the first animated short film to feature synchronized sound. The overnight success of the plucky rodent (whose voice was supplied by Walt himself) laid the foundation for Disney’s subsequent ventures. Besides the Mickey Mouse cartoons that became a staple of movie houses, Disney produced such popular animated shorts as The Three Little Pigs (1933). Gambling that a full-length animated feature could succeed with audiences, he put all his resources into such a project. The result was the 1937 release of the groundbreaking Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Disney would eventually create a family entertainment empire that included live action as well as classic animated films, television, and the Disneyland and Disney World theme parks.

Advised that Disneyland was Walt Disney’s “most cherished project,” Karsh made a special trip to the recently opened theme park before photographing its creator. Yousuf Karsh. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery; gift of Estrellita Karsh in memory of Yousuf Karsh.
Albert Einstein transformed the world of physics with his groundbreaking theory of relativity, and in 1921 he received the Nobel Prize for “his services to theoretical physics” and “his discovery of the law of photoelectric effect.” The German-born physicist was visiting the United States when Hitler and the Nazis came to power in his homeland in 1933. Einstein never returned to Germany. Instead, he accepted a position at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey—the newly established academic institution that would become a major center for research in theoretical physics. In residence at the institute for the remainder of his life, Einstein continued to publish, work on the interpretation of quantum theory, and wrestle without success on his unified field theory. He became a U.S. citizen in 1940.

Karsh relished the opportunity to photograph Einstein, whose face, “in all its rough grandeur, invited and challenged the camera.” Yousuf Karsh. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery; gift of Estrellita Karsh in memory of Yousuf Karsh.
Yousuf Karsh (self portrait above) “set [his] heart on photographing those...who leave their mark on the world,” thus creating iconic portraits of many of the 20th century's most influential men and women. Yousuf Karsh. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery; gift of Estrellita Karsh in memory of Yousuf Karsh.
A luminous beauty whose film career spanned just six years (1951–56), Grace Kelly left an indelible legacy with her performances in eleven motion pictures, many of which remain Hollywood classics. After her 1951 film debut in a minor role, she received wide notice for her performance opposite Gary Cooper in High Noon (1952). A year later, Kelly garnered her first Academy Award nomination for her work in Mogambo (1953). In 1954 she starred in four major releases, including the Alfred Hitchcock thrillers Dial M for Murder and Rear Window, and the drama The Country Girl, for which she won the Best Actress Oscar. Kelly scored additional hits with To Catch a Thief (1955) and the musical High Society (1956) before ending her Hollywood career to marry Monaco’s Prince Rainier in April 1956.

When Grace Kelly posed for Karsh’s camera, she was recently engaged and about to begin her new life as Monaco’s Princess Grace. Yousuf Karsh. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery; gift of Estrellita Karsh in memory of Yousuf Karsh.
A towering figure in the history of broadcasting, Edward R. Murrow achieved international acclaim, first as a radio news correspondent and later as a pioneer in the emerging medium of television. Murrow began his career with the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) in 1935 and was assigned to head the radio network’s European bureau in London in 1937. When war engulfed Europe and Hitler’s bombs rained down on Britain, Murrow remained at his London post. He assembled a superb roster of war correspondents for CBS and brought the conflict into American living rooms with his own vivid eyewitness reports that kept listeners glued to their radios. After the war, Murrow transitioned to television with See It Now—his groundbreaking documentary series that featured both in-depth reporting and news analysis. It was via the program’s March 9, 1954, broadcast that Murrow helped to discredit Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist campaign by exposing the senator’s unsavory tactics. Yousuf Karsh. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery; gift of Estrellita Karsh in memory of Yousuf Karsh.
One of the most influential architects to emerge in the decades following World War II, I. M. Pei is recognized throughout the world for his striking, high-modernist designs. Drawn to the United States to study architecture in 1935, Pei earned his undergraduate degree from MIT and later completed graduate work at Harvard. After first directing the architectural division of a large real-estate concern, Pei founded his own architecture firm in 1955, one year after becoming a U.S. citizen. As his reputation grew, important projects—such as the 1964 commission for the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library—came his way. Pei went on to create such iconic structures as the critically acclaimed East Wing of the National Gallery of Art (1978) and the distinctive glass pyramid that forms the entrance to the Louvre (1988). He has received many major awards, including the coveted Pritzker Prize (1983). Yousuf Karsh. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery; gift of Estrellita Karsh in memory of Yousuf Karsh.
As the nation’s first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt rapidly expanded her role from hostess to advocate and emerged as a vital force in her husband Franklin’s administration. She took public stands on issues ranging from exploitative labor practices to civil rights, but more important, she often urged her husband toward measures he might otherwise have avoided. When the challenges of World War II drew the president’s attention from domestic affairs, she continued to be a strong voice for the New Deal’s social welfare policies. The activism that characterized Eleanor Roosevelt’s years as first lady did not end with her departure from the White House. As a U.S. delegate to the United Nations (1945–53), she was instrumental in formulating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and securing its ratification by the General Assembly in 1948.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s hands were seldom still, and Karsh captured their expressive qualities in this portrait. Yousuf Karsh. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery; gift of Estrellita Karsh in memory of Yousuf Karsh.
With his development of the first safe and effective vaccine against polio, virologist Jonas Salk became a hero to millions. In the early 1940s, Salk and esteemed fellow scientist Thomas Francis Jr. revolutionized immunology with their killed-virus vaccine for influenza, which produced protective antibodies without exposing recipients to the live virus itself. Spurred by the success of the influenza vaccine, Salk began working in 1947 to produce a vaccine for polio, a viral infection capable of killing or severely crippling its victims, especially young children. With crucial support from what is now the March of Dimes, he initiated experiments with killed-virus vaccines, reporting positive results in 1953. An extensive field trial followed, and on April 12, 1955, it was announced to the public that Salk’s polio vaccine had proven effective, powerful, and safe—an achievement hailed by the American Medical Association as “one of the greatest events in the history of medicine.” Yousuf Karsh. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery; gift of Estrellita Karsh in memory of Yousuf Karsh.
Harland Sanders perfected his signature fried chicken in 1939 while operating a gas station, motel, and roadside café in rural Corbin, Kentucky. Traditional fried chicken took as long as thirty minutes to cook, but Sanders discovered he could produce a juicy, flavorful product in as little as eight to nine minutes by using one of the newly introduced pressure cookers. His distinctive chicken remained the café’s principal attraction until 1956, when Sanders sold the business after learning that a new interstate highway would bypass Corbin by seven miles. Armed with pressure cookers and his secret blend of “eleven herbs and spices,” the sixty-six-year-old Sanders took to the road to build a franchise network for his unique “Kentucky Fried Chicken.” He met with phenomenal success. In 1964, when Sanders sold the majority of his holdings for $2 million, there were 900 Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets in the United States, Canada, England, and Japan. Yousuf Karsh. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery; gift of Estrellita Karsh in memory of Yousuf Karsh.

During a career that spanned six decades, photographer Yousuf Karsh (1908–2002) created iconic portraits of many of the 20th century’s most influential men and women—individuals who distinguished themselves in fields as diverse as business, medicine, entertainment, politics, and the arts.

A refugee from persecution in his native Armenia, Karsh immigrated to Canada in 1925. His uncle, a professional photographer, facilitated Karsh’s apprenticeship with the renowned Boston portrait photographer John H. Garo in 1928. By the time Karsh returned to Canada, he had “set [his] heart on photographing those men and women who leave their mark on the world.” In May 1933, he opened his portrait studio in Ottawa.

Karsh developed his distinctive portrait style by drawing inspiration from a variety of sources. Introduced to stage lighting techniques through his association with the Ottawa Drama League, he experimented with artificial lighting to achieve the dramatic effects that became the hallmark of his portraiture. Believing that “the heart and mind are the true lens of the camera,” Karsh also developed a genuine rapport with his sitters and partnered with them to fashion portraits that were both revealing and respectful.

The phenomenal success of his 1941 portrait of Winston Churchill served as the catalyst to Karsh’s career. Thereafter, he traveled the world fulfilling portrait commissions and editorial assignments. Karsh photographed countless international figures, but his images of Americans—from Albert Einstein to Martha Graham—are counted among his finest portraits.

In 2012, Estrellita Karsh presented 109 portraits by her husband, Yousuf Karsh, to the National Portrait Gallery. Highlights from this major gift are featured in a new exhibition at the museum.

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